Reuben, Jacob’s Firstborn!
Today, let’s examine the blessing Jacob gives to each son.
“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
My might and the beginning of my strength,
The excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.
Unstable as water, you shall not excel,
Because you went up to your father’s bed;
Then you defiled it—
He went up to my couch.
Genesis 49:3-4 (NKJV)
Though we are not told the reaction of any of the sons, it should not be hard to imagine the crushing blow dealt to Reuben; for at this instant, humiliated in front of his brothers, he was disowned from his position as the NATURAL firstborn of Israel.
One can imagine he SHOULD have suspected such a result, particularly since his younger brother Judah had been relied on more and more by Jacob for leadership over the past few years.
Rueben knew the wrongs he had committed against his father; but hit with the unalterable finality of it all, a brutally depressed Rueben had to be the result.
Jacob says of Rueben, you are…“unstable as water…you shall not have preeminence…because you defiled my bed”. In other words, you do not have the necessary attributes to lead Israel, so you shall not receive the firstborn blessing.
This “bed defiling” incident is recalled for us in Chronicles.
PLEASE TURN TO THIS SCRIPTURE. We need to take in VERY carefully what it says, for it is key to our understanding of the blessings that Jacob will give his sons, AND more.
The Family of Reuben
Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel—he was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel, so that the genealogy is not listed according to the birthright; yet Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came a ruler, although the birthright was Joseph’s—
1 Chronicles 5:1-2 (NKJV)
Now, in a long way around the barn, this verse tells us a couple of things: first, the cause of Jacob passing over Reuben was that he had slept with Jacob’s concubine, Bilah: straightforward enough.
But, what also happened was, in essence, the honors and blessings that traditionally went to the firstborn got split between two other sons: Joseph and Judah. Or, as we saw in Genesis 48, actually the firstborn rights got split between Ephraim, Joseph’s son, and Judah.
So, the Chronicler tells us that the EARTHLY reason behind Jacob’s Cross-Handed Blessing upon Joseph’s sons was to disinherit Rueben because of what Rueben had done. Of course, God had other reasons to allow this scenario to unfold.
There are two major components that make-up the traditional firstborn blessing:
- First, was the double-portion, which meant that the firstborn was to receive two shares (or more) of the tribe’s wealth instead of one?
- Second, was that the firstborn was given the right of authority to LEAD, to rule over, the whole tribe.
If all had gone as normal, Reuben would not only have been the leader of the tribe his own birth had created (the tribe of Reuben), he would have become the leader over all of Israel…. he would have ruled in his father, Jacob’s, place…over the full 12 tribes. AND, he would have received a double-portion, twice as much of the tribe’s wealth as any of his brothers received. Reuben got none of this.
Instead, we see that Joseph would receive the double portion (by means of his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh) and Judah would receive the right to rule and lead.
Now, let me tell you: this is strange action that Jacob took, in splitting the firstborn blessing. But, also keep in mind a very important element that the writer of Chronicles explains: genealogically speaking, Judah’s family was the one who would carry forth authority.
So, in matters of Israel where genealogy was the deciding factor…. such as who would be the first legitimate King of Israel (David), and who would be the King forever (Jesus)…. It would be Judah’s bloodlines that would be used…not Joseph’s and not Reuben’s. Yet, in a strange way, Joseph ALSO received the firstborn blessing. Let me show you how that happened.
Here’s the thing: often we will see the Bible use the terms “double-portion blessing” and “birthright” and “firstborn blessing” interchangeably.
BUT… we need to understand, that even though in the common vernacular of that day the term double-portion was used synonymously with firstborn blessing, technically, the double-portion was only PART of the firstborn blessing.
It was ASSUMED, according to tradition that whoever was awarded the firstborn blessing got every element that traditionally went with it. That is, whoever received the double-portion of the family’s wealth ALSO automatically received the right to rule over the tribe.
But, Jacob did something very novel in splitting the firstborn blessing between two heirs, two sons, two tribes of Israel.
In my opinion the reason that the writer of Chronicles worded these verses in the way he did, is because he didn’t fully comprehend what it all meant, and what it would all lead to.
WHY the Firstborn blessing was divided between two sons, the writer obviously doesn’t know because it wasn’t usually done this way.
In fact, I’m unaware of anywhere else in the Bible that the splitting of the firstborn blessing, as Jacob did, ever again occurred. This event seems to be completely unique. So, all the writer of Chronicles does is to assert the facts, as he understands them, without further explanation.
Now, lets see how Jacob’s blessing of Reuben worked out…the prophesy that Reuben’s descendants would be as unstable as water, and that they would not be leaders.
When we search the scriptures, we will find that the tribe of Reuben did not produce one single military leader, king, prophet, nor judge…not one of Reuben’s descendants are mentioned in the Bible as having attained a position of particular value or honor, nor accomplishing anything of significance.
We also find that after the 12 tribes, led by Moses, approached the promised land of Canaan, the tribe of Reuben decided NOT to enter the Promised Land, but rather to settle for “good enough”. They took some territory as their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan River, outside the land of Canaan.
We even find that Reuben’s tribe began a steady decline in their population. Moses was apparently so concerned about the condition of the tribe of Reuben that he prayed (Deut.33:6) “Let the tribe of Reuben live and not die out, though they are few in number”.
The tribe of Reuben was destined to become an asterisk in the history of Israel, due to Reuben’s unstable ways and his sin.
It is a simple, yet profound, Biblical principle that while our sins are most certainly forgiven and paid for, the consequences of our sins can be enduring throughout our lifetimes and on into the lives our children, our children’s children, and beyond. We may not like it, but it is so. Our sinful ways can introduce characteristics into our families that are detrimental and long lasting in their effects. And, all we have to do is live long enough to know the truth of that statement.